The problem with starting a company that is supposed to be good for the environment is that the owners have a big moral dilemma (e.g. a market opportunity) when faced with the waste (e.g. byproducts) they produce.
The NYT reports that industrial chemists in America are seeking ways to make profit from biofuel beyond its primary use. Scientists are working on disposal alternatives for fuel byproduct:
In another lab at Iowa State, Robert C. Brown is using distillers’ dry grain —a main byproduct of corn ethanol that is largely sold as animal feed — to produce hydrogen and a compound called PHA. Mr. Brown hopes his version of PHA, which is biodegradable, could be used for surgical gowns and gloves that must now be disposed of as medical waste.
Ethanol as a fuel is as much a dead-end for our general welfare as corn-syrup is for food, but don’t try to tell that to an industry trying to squeeze every penny out of crops while externalizing risks. Concerns for the welfare of the planet, let alone a fellow human, are not the usual rules of game here. The value system underlying the research is based on the much older highly-industrialized model of finding profit in areas without regulation (e.g. to ensure health). The news these days usually attributes this kind of risky behavior to China , rather than right in our own back yard.
The price of glycerol, now 20 to 50 cents a pound, could drop as low as 5 cents a pound as biodiesel production increases.
Mr. Kraus [professor of chemistry at Iowa State] said the higher quality glycerol made with the new process could command a much higher price. “What we see,” he said, “is an opportunity to make something that might cost 80 cents a pound.”
Money talks. In sum, it appears that the bio-fuel innovators are starting to try and emulate the model they think of as successful:
This, in turn, could help transform the biodiesel industry into something that more closely resembles the petroleum industry, where fuel is just one of many profitable products.
“Just like petroleum refineries make more than one product that are the feedstock for other industries, the same will have to be true for biofuels,” said Kenneth F. Reardon, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. “Biorefining is what the vision has to look like in the end.”
The problem with this is that the petroleum industry model is unhealthy. It puts the environment, including human health, low on the list of priorities for success.
In an emerging market where health and the environment threaten to be a top priority, a big paradigm shift for the vision of a bio-refinery seems like a sensible conclusion. More than one product, indeed, but waste disposal should have a whole new meaning. Or as the Director of Beijing Olympics cycling events put it recently
[President of the International Olympic Committee] Rogge’s comment reminds us that we have to work harder to fix environmental problems.
Couldn’t have said it better myself. After billions have been spent, pollution and waste are still a problem, which means a market opportunity of many more billions ahead.